On my last trip to Nairobi in October, I had the misfortune of driving around town on graduation day for the local university. It was also the start of a three-day holiday honoring Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president. Traffic can often be heavy in this bustling metropolis that recently passed the 3.5 million mark, and on this particular day the streets were like a parking lot. I decided to step outside the taxi with a friend and walk back to my hotel. Hearing my Yankee accent, one of the graduates stepped in front of me and said, “Obama did well on the last debate, don’t you agree?”
Obama fever has rippled across Kenya as it has in America — and rightfully so, with his father of Kenyan descent. Yet Nairobi newcomers are often surprised by the eagerness of strangers to engage them in an intelligent conversation that could last well into the night over several rounds of Tusker Beer. First-time visitors often have misconceptions of Nairobi as some dusty backwater where narrow streets are filled with destitute people ready to pounce on their wallets — an impression stemming from an outbreak of thievery in the late 1990s that earned the city the nickname, “Nairobbery.”
Today, especially with the post-election violence of January 2007 in the rearview mirror, Nairobi is a relatively safe and cosmopolitan hub of East Africa. Still, don’t test your luck by walking through the city parks at twilight. Stick to the wide boulevards, like Kenyatta Avenue, where imposing federal buildings shadow the freshly potted plants and rows of trees. The proud mix of people you’ll pass includes recent immigrants from the country’s rural areas, Europeans and Americans working in the travel and banking industries, and fifth-generation Indians who helped build the tracks that created this city at the turn of the last century. The poor, who flood out of their shanties every morning to walk to nearby factories, merge with a growing middle class and the affluent, whose gated estates in the western suburbs of Karen and Langata have far more in common with Boca Raton than Bogotá.
To learn about the city’s origins, make a stop at the Railway Museum on Station Road. In 1896, the British began construction on a railroad line from Mombasa to Uganda, a project dubbed the “Lunatic Express” because work was frequently halted by dangers — charging rhinos attracted by the roar of engines, ravenous lions with a taste for human flesh (as seen in the movie The Ghost and the Darkness) and thousands of caterpillars that congregated on the tracks and made them slippery. Yet, by the start of the 1900s, Nairobi became a central locale for the British Empire, and by 1907 was the capital of East Africa. At the museum, you can step into the railway car used by Theodore Roosevelt in his 1908 quest to hunt big game, along with the carriage from which British builder Charles Ryall was dragged to his death by a lion.
Another worthwhile stop is the Kenya National Museum on Museum Hill, reopened this past July after refurbishment. The museum chronicles the paleontology of Richard and Mary Leakey, who in the 1960s unearthed the bones and skull of earth’s first known man, near the shores of Lake Turkana, establishing the Great Rift Valley as the possible site of the cradle of humanity. There are also rooms devoted to contemporary art, including works by Joy Adamson, the author of Born Free.
Souvenir seekers should visit City Market on Muindi Mbingu Street. Open daily, the stalls sell everything from African masks and wood carvings to fresh papaya. If you’re looking for that perfect Maasai spear and beads, visit the Maasai Market on Saturday morning at the parking lot next to the Law Courts, where hundreds of Maasai traders sell their wares.
Nairobi has traditionally served as a one-night stopover for folks venturing on safari. Few realize that Kenya’s capital also has several excellent wildlife opportunities. At the David Sheldrick Elephant Or phanage, west of city center in Langata, baby elephants whose parents have been killed by poachers are raised by workers who actually sleep in the stalls to comfort the young. When they’re old enough, the elephants are brought back to the wild. The center is open daily from 11 a.m. to noon.
Nearby is Nairobi National Park, established in 1945 as the country’s first national park. With the tall buildings of Nairobi looming on the horizon, this exquisite valley is home to lions, cheetahs, black rhino, buffalo, giraffes, zebras and wildebeests, who make their annual migration in and out of the park much like they do at the better known Maasai Mara. As they say in these parts, safari njema! Have a good journey!
FAIRMONT THE NORFOLK HOTEL
First opened in 1904, the Norfolk is a famous colonial landmark, hosting such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen. The red-roofed hotel sits across from the University of Nairobi near Kenyatta Avenue and city center. Recently purchased by the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, all guestrooms have been refurbished with new beds, carpeting and windows overlooking the tranquil central courtyard, as well as flat-screen TVs and rainforest showers guaranteed to get you spanking clean after your days in the bush. Especially attractive are eight new suites with small sitting areas and contemporary Kenyan art on the walls.$$$
FAIRMONT THE NORFOLK HOTEL
Harry Thuku Road
tel 254 20 221 6940
THE GIRAFFE MANOR
If you want to wake up to a giraffe sticking its head through the bedroom window, stay at the six-room Giraffe Manor on the grounds of the Giraffe Centre. Built in 1932 to resemble a Scottish hunting lodge, the manor offers wonderful views of the Ngong Hills. All meals are included, and the inn will pick you up at the international airport for an additional charge.$$$
THE GIRAFFE MANOR
tel 254 20 891 078
HOUSE OF WAINE
Set on 2.5 acres of rolling landscape and lush gardens, House of Waine is an intimate 11-room guest lodge. Individually decorated rooms feature Internet access and marble baths illuminated by natural sunlight streaming through large windows. Gracious living is the order of the day at this family-owned property where afternoon tea, served at the pool bar or on the terrace, is a longstanding tradition.$$$$
HOUSE OF WAINE
Masai Lane and Bogani Road
tel 254 20 891 820
An apt name for this Nairobi institution that serves meat Brazilian-style on large skewers. Expect beef, chicken, lamb, pork and more exotic fare like ostrich and crocodile. For one price, you dine on all the meat you can eat, along with soup, bread, salad and dessert. When you’ve had your fair share, simply lower the flag on the table. $$
tel 254 20 605 9337
Now that Executive Chef Abdalla Masoud has created his own herb garden on the premises and convinced Kenyan farmers to grow food for his restaurant along with the fare they ship to U.K. supermarkets, you can expect the freshest ingredients at the Norfolk Hotel’s signature restaurant. Start with the sublime butternut squash or cappuccino pea soup, and then move on to tender ostrich in a tangy sauce or vegetarian lasagna. Save room for the five-spice crème brûlée with hints of cardamom and ginger. $$
Harry Thuku Road
tel 254 20 221 6940
This cozy outpost in Karen is known for its quirky mix of Indian and Middle Eastern flavors. Sink into a couch in the outdoor garden and order tasty feta and coriander samosas, moist lamb kebabs and a spicy stir-fry.$$
320 320 Ngong Road
tel 254 20 883 213
The suburb of Karen, a 25-minute drive west of town, was named after Out of Africa author Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pen name Isak Dineson. Visit the estate she lived on from 1913 to 1931, now home to the Karen Blixen Museum (www.museums.or.ke). The grounds, dotted with prehistoric-looking candelabra cacti, overlook the Ngong Hills and are themselves worth the price of admission. Inside, you’ll find several of Blixen’s belongings and props from the film, which will no doubt remind you of the steamy affair she had with flyboy Denys Finch Hatton, played by Robert Redford in the movie.
Near the Elephant Orphanage in the neighboring suburb of Langata is the Giraffe Centre (www.giraffecenter.org), founded in 1979 to save the endangered Rothschild giraffes. You can take nature walks and let the tall creatures lick peanuts from your hands, an unforgettable experience.
INFO TO GO
Located nine miles east of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) is the largest airport in East and Central Africa, with direct connections to Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and the African continent. Several transport services operate between the airport and city hotels, starting at about $20. Walking around Nairobi’s small city center is relatively straightforward, but in some areas it is best to take a taxi for safety reasons. Nairobi taxis are usually marked with a yellow line along each side and are not metered; negotiate a price with the driver before departure. Large Kenyan buses and matatus (minibuses) operate on set routes throughout the city. Visit www.magicalkenya.com.
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